Dec. 3 (UPI) -- A new high-speed railway that cost billions to build opened Friday and runs between a mountainous region of Laos and southern China -- a new route officials hope will help boost trade between the two nations.
The 642-mile rail line will ferry passengers between the Laotian capital Vientiane and Kunming in China's southwest. Beijing paid most of the $5.9 billion cost for the new transit system, which first broke ground six years ago.
China wanted to build the line as part of plans to link undeveloped parts of the mainland with busy ports outside the country.
The new railway spans 167 bridges and 75 tunnels and the trains move at a top speed of 99 mph, cutting the end-to-end transit time from 15 hours to just four.
The train's first run was launched on Friday after the line was blessed by Buddhist monks. Laotian Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh was a passenger on the first run.
The opening is a key move for China's Belt and Road Initiative project and is expected to usher a new wave of trade and tourism into one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries.
Laos hopes the train will help transform its economy and has committed to covering 30% of the project's cost. Much of the amount is backed by loans from China with land and natural resources as collateral.
Laos has already borrowed from China for other projects and fears a looming debt.
Work on other sections of the project is underway in Thailand and Malaysia.